THEY say that a murderer is always held responsible for his crime and punished with a punishment due to his guilt, except in case he enters the city of Benares, where he obtains pardon ―Tarikh al-Hind by al-Biruni, AD 1017
These lines by medieval Muslim scholar al-Biruni are among the earliest travellers’ descriptions of Benares in Uttar Pradesh. Al-Biruni’s visit to India in 1017 resulted in his landmark Tarikh al-Hind, or ‘History of India’, a journal that vividly describes the geography and culture of India from an Islamic perspective. Sections of Tarikh al-Hind are critical of the practices of Indians, who he felt did not conform to the Islamic ideas of right and wrong. The journal nevertheless describes the concepts of sin, virtue, rebirth and idolatry as understood by the people of medieval India.
Al-Biruni, who hailed from Khwarizm in modern Uzbekistan, was one of the talented, multidisciplinary stars of the court of Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni, ruler of the Ghaznavid empire between AD 997 and 1030. Al-Biruni equates Benares with the pilgrim centres of Kurukshetra, Mathura and Multan, where one could purge the sins of a lifetime. He makes detailed observations about Hindu pilgrims and the cult of Lord Shiva in Benares, better known to Hindus as Varanasi.
The ties between Lord Shiva and Benares, which al-Biruni describes in his journal, remain unchanged. The Kashi Vishwanath temple, dedicated to Shiva, is still the most famous shrine in the city. Outside the temple, rows of shops display the shivlinga in its various forms. The linga is one symbol that connects al-Biruni’s Benares with its chaotic, 21st century namesake.
In Tarikh al-Hind, al-Biruni describes in great detail the manner of crafting a lingam. At one point, quoting sixth-century polymath Varahamihira, he describes the steps taken to prevent any harm to the shivlinga, failing which misfortune might fall on the country and the people.
He also recounts the legend that gave Benares its reputation: Once, Shiva fought with Brahma, who had four heads. Brahma lost to Shiva, who severed one of his heads. Thereafter, Shiva carried Brahma’s head with him as a trophy wherever he went. But, as time passed, the trophy became a burden for Shiva. He could lose it only when he entered Benares, where the head dropped from his hands and vanished. Thanks to the myth, Benares became the city of forgiveness.
In his journal, al-Biruni is also fascinated by the river Ganga, which sustains the city. As a person hailing from the predominantly arid central Asia, he is fascinated by the Indian concept of water as an agent that cleanses the soul. He also marvels at the skill with which the natives built ponds and other water bodies for ritualistic purposes.
Centuries later, the legacy of Benares remains untarnished by the dirty sewers, chaotic traffic and the cow dung and pan stains strewn all over the city. However, the neglect the city shows towards the Ganga would rankle visitors. Thankfully, initiatives in recent times have highlighted the need for keeping the river clean.
Tarikh al-Hind also describes the tradition of “Hindu anchorites” travelling to Benares and spending their lives there, comparing it with the pilgrimages of early Muslim holy men to Mecca. Al-Biruni observes that most of the principles of Hinduism deal with the cycle of life and death―a reason Hindus continuously strive to have a better deal in their next birth.
The concept of the eternal cycle of the birth, death and rebirth still governs life in Benares. It becomes apparent in the evening, as pilgrims begin their prayers and chants on the ghats of the Ganga, and offer lamps, flowers and sweets to the river. On Manikarnika ghat, the pyres of those who were brought for cremation in this holy town burn in the way al-Biruni might have had observed.
For pilgrims, the river, the boats, the lamps, and the ephemeral nature of life create a sentiment that brings out the timeless nature of Benares. It is then that the magical power of ancient city emerges. At that moment, as the meaning of life flickers before them for a fleeting moment, some of them break down and some meditate. Others rejoice and embrace each other, as they feel themselves regenerated by the spiritual heart of a civilisation.